The young teen watched his teammates laugh with one another. He didn’t understand why, but the sound of their gaggling infuriated him.
“I was proud of you today,” his father said as they walked toward the car.
“Thanks,” he replied.
“You played hard.”
“Yeah,” the teen said. He couldn’t stop watching his teammates. They walked in front of him bouncing and pushing like energized puppies.
“It’s never fun to lose. But you didn’t quit.”
“Yeah,” the distracted teen said again. His teammates had pulled another five yards ahead of them. They were chanting a song about being losers, chanting and laughing. Their play did not take the sting from the word for him though, adding melody to it only made it hurt more.
“It was good the other coach pulled back in the second half. If you have to lose, it’s better to lose to a good sport.”
“Yeah,” the teen said. He thought back to the second half. Already ahead five to nothing, the opposing team’s coach instructed his players to pass more before shooting. After two more goals, the coach demanded they only took shots outside the penalty area. After two more goals, he forbade them from shooting. Those last three minutes were the worst. The game devolved into a complex game of keep-away. It was embarrassing. But there his teammates were, laughing. Teasing one another about the beating they’d just received. The teen wondered if his team would still carry on if he made the beating less metaphorical.
The teen’s cleat caught a crack in the parking lot and he fell. He caught himself with his right hand, the skin of his palm scrapping on the pavement.
“Whoa, you alright?” his father said, catching him from behind.
“I’m fine,” he said, standing and brushing himself off. The new pain in his palm sang in harmony with the ache in his legs.
“You sure you’re okay,” his father said. “You’ve got to be exhausted. You played the whole game. I bet your legs are killing you.”
His legs were killing him, but not just from exhaustion. A defender’s knee had collided with his thigh as he’d tried to jockey the ball around the defender for a better shot. He was sure there was a large black bruise forming under his shorts. Blood from his left calf had glued his sock to his skin. The adhesion had begun after the opposing teams sweeper had fought him for a ball in front of the goal.
“I’m fine,” he said again as he began heading toward the car. His teammates, now ten yards ahead, continued their raucous play.
“How does that make you feel?” his father asked.
“What?” he replied.
“Your team. How does it make you feel to get beat nine to nothing, but watch your team still have energy left at the end of the game?”
The question washed over him with a wave of clarity, bringing relief to his soul as it defined his anger. “It sucks,” he said looking at the ground. “I hate it. I hate losing.”
“There’s no shame in losing, son. This won’t be the last time. Life’s full of losses.”
He watched his teammates pile into a red minivan. They shook the car and sang the chorus to Queen’s We Will Rock You. Arriving at his dad’s car, he opened the front passenger door and gingerly climbed into the seat.
He looked forward, out the front windshield, at the field before them. “I hate it,” he said again. “I hate losing.”
“Good,” his father said, starting the car. “If you liked it, there’d be something wrong with you.”
“When you know you’re going to lose,” his father began.
“Like after the opening kickoff when they scored in less than a minute,” he mumbled bitterly.
“When you know you’re going to lose,” his father repeated, “the goal becomes the fight. Leave it on the field. Every last drop.”
The teen looked at the ceiling of the car and sighed. He was tired, and suddenly hungry.
“Like today,” his father said. “You lost, but you left it all on the field.”
“Yeah,” the teen said, closing his eyes as his father pulled their car out of the spot and started home.
To read more of Jeff’s work, check out his website VagrantMisunderstandings.com